We didn't make it to the trailhead until almost sunset. Lots of miles to cover moving gingerly on slippery roads across north central Wisconsin made it so. Knowing before we'd even left home that we'd probably spend a lot of time riding in the dark on this trip, and knowing that my lovely wife isn't super fond of so doing, I made an investment. Not just in equipment, this investment was meant to ensure marital harmony. I bought us 2 good lights each.
We made it maybe 10 minutes into the woods before these lights were mandatory. More on that in a bit.
The Underdown singletrack system is what I think of as old-school mountain bike trail. I mean that as a compliment. It is tight and often steep, such that when the trail is covered in snow you need to be engaged 100% of the time to stay on the bike. I have no real idea what the trail tread looks like underneath all that snow, but the grades and intimate (read: the trees are *close*) nature tell me all I need to know: These trails have not yet been dumbed down to accommodate the least common denominator, and as such they reward anyone looking for a little challenge.
Challenge would be the name of the game on this evening, as the early-season snow was copious and it hadn't yet seen much traffic. On the level you could ride just fine, but add some grade or an off-camber and things became questionable. Add a very tight turn in the midst of that steep grade and you needed to be having an all-star day to stay on the bike. Jeny and I traded leads. each putting their best foot forward in trying to crack the code of the challenging conditions. Every few minutes, usually while catching breath from the last anaerobic effort, we'd reach down and let a few "pssssssts" out of each tire. Even though flotation proper wasn't an issue (we weren't sinking in very far), the trail had been traversed enough times by snowshoers and their dogs that the track was packed but it still had an odd, almost styrofoamy quality to it. You weren't sinking, but you weren't floating either, and you didn't have much traction to work with.
I think of midwestern snow as being moist, more dense than what we get out west. And this is usually true. But temps had been crisp and the most recent snow was a week+ old, thus (I surmised) the cold air had sucked all moisture out of the snow, rendering it difficult to pack tight. This part of the Underdown is 'groomed' only through use, and it just hadn't been used enough to set up tight yet this winter.
Late in the ride we crossed paths with "Chris", out for a walk with his dog and a sled load of wood. Over the course of a few minutes of conversation we learned that Chris spends a lot of time at the Underdown, dragging his sled around to 'open' trails up, knowing that once they're open the snowshoers will follow them to see where they lead. Chris, seeming wiser with every moment, has essentially trained (his word!) the snowshoers to groom these trails so that fatbikes can be ridden on them all winter long. Brilliant.
Back to the lights: I know from personal experience that 100 lumens is plenty, for me, when riding on snow, ~95% of the time. If I'm navigating across wide open spaces and need a lot of reach to, say, see across a drifted meadow or a lake to determine where the trail leaves said meadow or lake, I want the ability to bump up to 200 lumens. Much more than 200 lumens has always seemed extravagant, wasteful, not really needed.
But that's me -- and my experience was borne out of necessity: When racing for weeks at a stretch (back when I was doing that) you simply couldn't carry enough batteries, so you'd conserve light any way you could and, eventually, you became adept at making do with very little. Often in the Idita events I'd just ride by starlight for hours of every night, because even that little bit of light allows you to see using your peripheral. If there's a moon beyond crescent you can see just fine as long as it's up. And in so doing you're banking battery power for when it's really needed -- like on cloudy or snowy nights when you have no choice but to light things up.
I also know from personal experience that my wife likes a lot more light than I do, to the extent that I end up riding well behind her most of the time so that my eyes can adjust to less light. I like to look around and see out into the woods, and using very little light means my eyes don't need to adjust as much when looking away from that light. Jeny is different -- she likes to push back the night with vast quantities of light, which means she scorches the retinas of any critter unwise enough to look her way. I think it's partially self defense...
Above, Jeny with lots of light at her disposal. Happy wife, happy life.
With these little Ion lights, she could happily run hers on the middle setting and still get 3 solid hours of well-placed light, while I could run mine on the low setting and get 6. With one light on the bars and one on our helmets, we couldn't have asked for more or better placed light. After the initial few minutes of "gee whiz this is great!" I realized our speeds were so low that I didn't really need a helmet light, and turned it off for the rest of the ride. Which reminds me -- the Ion's integrated helmet mount is incredibly slick. Why didn't someone do this sooner?
We closed the loop with a walk across a drifted bog (lake?) that led us back into more fun, technical, rewarding singletrack back to the barn.
Thanks to Chris (and his minions!) for creating and maintaining such a great winter riding experience at the Underdown.